Treasured Friends

I bade a sad farewell to some treasured old friends a little while ago.

I learned that a local bookstore owner would pay me fifty cents a copy for all my old books, which he would then re-sell to his customers to realize a small profit.

Like you, perhaps, I have purchased a large number of books over the years, both hard- and soft-cover varieties.  They’ve all been read once—some much more often—and those I wanted to keep were placed lovingly in one of several bookcases.  But, as we downsized to a smaller home, the day arrived when there was just no more room.

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Being one to whom books are almost living things, I couldn’t bear the thought of packing them away in musty cartons for storage, out of sight and soon forgotten.  Somehow, though, it seemed alright to pass them along to others who would enjoy them as I had.  So, over a number of weeks, I carried out the task of sorting and packing more than three hundred-and-eighty books.

I had acquired the habit years ago of writing my name and the year when the book came into my possession on the inside front cover of each one I read.  How delightful it was to browse them once again, as I sorted, lingering over memories associated with those many years.

There was a boxed set of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, Lord of the Rings, a gift from my brother in 1960; a biography of John Kennedy and a copy of the Warren Commission Report of 1965, when the shooting in Dallas was still a recent shock; several novels in a series about a modern-day knight-errant named Travis McGee—the first purchased in 1966 and its successors as each was subsequently published; a number of biographical works from the late 1970’s about such notables as Churchill, MacArthur, Lee and Jackson, and Trudeau (the elder); a Civil War story, After the Glory, perhaps my favourite novel; and, of course, dozens of others.

There were titles of a more recent vintage, too:  thrillers from such writers as Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Lee Child; more biographies of famous and infamous people—Ghandi, Mandela, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Jimmy Carter, Terry Fox; histories of significant events in my lifetime, dealing with the aftermath of the Great War, the great depression, the fall of Soviet communism, the rise of the Beatles, and the future impacts of technology.

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I had determined to be ruthless in my sorting, adamant about packing everything, unyielding in my determination to move all of them out.  Inevitably, however, there were some I had to keep (including the eight I’ve published, of course).  I’ve never been resolute about being resolute!

Anyway, in due course, I was finished.  Ten cardboard cartons, each the repository of hundreds of hours of private enjoyment, sat waiting for me to take them to the bookstore.  But I, despite my earlier resolve, was plagued by a great sense of loss, a sense of having betrayed a trust, a sense of abandoning something that had become a part of me.

And so, they sat for awhile—those cartons echoing with silent, accusatory voices of so many old friends—awaiting my decision as to their fate.

After several restless nights, plagued by remorse, I hit upon an idea.  An old pal of mine owns a cottage near Parry Sound, one unencumbered by the modern notion that such getaways must have access to the internet, telephones, and television.  Solitary pursuits are the order of the day in his idyllic retreat, and I gave him a call.

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“How’d you like to meet some new friends?” I asked him.  “They’d love to come and stay at the lake, and I know you’ll like them.”

It took some further explaining, naturally, but he came by the next time he was heading north, and we loaded the cartons into his SUV.  As he pulled away, I bowed my head, placed a hand over my heart, and mouthed a sad goodbye to those treasured old friends.  Dramatic, I know, but heartfelt.

However, I was greatly comforted by knowing I’ll be able to say hello to them all again and again each time I visit.  It brought an old ditty to mind—

Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver, and the other gold.

Grandpa’s Grammar

Your per-nunky-ayshun is her-ibble!

So spake my grandfather once upon a time, admonishing me—perhaps five years old at the time—when I mispronounced a word while talking with him.  I remember dissolving in laughter, delighted by the strange words coming from his mouth.

Language, and its proper usage, were important to him.  An accomplished calligrapher, a voracious reader, and an avocational writer, he was forever dwelling on the importance of speaking and writing correctly.

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Years later, as a young teacher, I carried on that same tradition by including grammar lessons in my pupils’ daily curriculum.  When I became a father, I continued the practice in conversations with our daughters.

Neither my wife nor I favoured the inane baby-talk that was so prevalent among parents back then as they communicated with their children.  Right from the beginning, we resolved to speak to the girls in proper sentences, expressing complete thoughts, using correct terminology, pronouncing words properly.  Most of it probably went over their heads in the beginning, of course, but we definitely set an expectation in their minds that effective communication was important.

Along the way, I made time to tell them of the various quirks and anomalies of the English language.  Making a game of it, or including it in story-times, helped, I think, to convey the lessons.

I’d explain to them about adverbs and adjectives, and how they’re used.  “Adverbs usually, but not always, end in ‘ly’,” I’d say.  “So, you don’t run quick or slow, you run quickly or slowly.  You don’t dress nice, you dress nicely.  Get it?”

“Huh?” their quizzical expressions would seem to say.

“You can feel good,” I might continue, “but you’re never doing good.  You’re doing well.  And, you’re never doing poor, but you could be doing poorly.”

“But, you’re always saying I eat too fast,” the eldest once said.  “Does that mean I’m eating too fastly?”

At that point, I launched into an apology for all the exceptions to the rules in English exposition.

Spelling and vowel-sounds were often challenging, as well, when I’d lead them through the pronunciation of such lookalike words as: through (long u sound), tough (short u sound), although (long o sound), cough (short o sound), and plough (sounds like ow).

For a long time, we enjoyed playing a silly-sounds game, asking each other to correct the mispronounced words in sentences like this: ‘Althoo my meat was toe, I got thruff most of it.’

To many of our friends, parents themselves, my emphasis on grammar and spelling likely seemed fetishist, even obsessive.

“I could care less about that stuff,” they often said to me.

“No,” I’d reply, “I think what you mean is that you couldn’t care less.  If you could care less, it would mean you consider it important.”

Most of them would roll their eyes and drop the subject.

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Pronunciation was always the main issue, though.  In time, the girls would recognize and laugh at obvious mistakes they’d hear on the radio or television, from speakers who ought to have known better.

“That guy said Nagra Falls, Daddy,” one might say.  “It should be Ni-a-ga-ra, right?”

Her sister might pipe up, “I heard someone talk about the nu-cu-lar bomb, instead of nu-cle-ar!”

“How about this one?” the first might say.  “We don’t eye-urn our clothes, we i-ron them.”

“Yeah, and there are no taggers in the zoo; they’re ti-gers.”

I suppose it was Grandpa’s grammar lessons that imprinted on me, and led me to become so insistent on proper language usage.

But, what about the situation today, I wonder, when so much of our verbal and written communication is made up of verbal shortcuts?

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Is the proper usage of language still important?

So many times now, I hear people say something like this in conversation: “So, she goes, ‘I like your dress.’  And I go, ‘Thanks!’  Then, she goes, ‘It’s nice.’”

Can they not use the correct word, as in ‘She said…’ and ‘I said…’?

It’s common anymore to hear someone say ‘What?’, not ‘Pardon?’ when they haven’t heard me; ‘Fer Shurr!’, not ‘For sure!’ when they’re certain of something; or, ‘It don’t matter!’, not ‘It doesn’t matter!’ when asked if everything is okay.

To me, it does matter.

Still, in the grand scheme of life, perhaps it no longer counts if our language continues to be used correctly and in its purest form.  It is a living thing, after all, and should, therefore, be expected to evolve over time, adapting to technology and 5G capabilities.

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But, so much of the first impression we convey to others about ourselves is wrapped up in how we speak, and in how we sound to others.  So much about our intellect and learning is tied up in how we write.  I have trouble accepting that grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, and pronunciation may no longer be valuable in our human discourse.

My grandfather told me over and over that our language should always be held in respect, and used in its highest form.  And I, a child at his knee, believed him.

“Otherwise,” he’d say, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “it will be a true cattas-troffy!

Nine Lives

It’s always been held that cats have nine lives, but a friend of mine, affectionately known as the Cat, must be close to running out.  Just how much longer he’ll be around is beginning to worry me.

He’s been the Cat since well before we both retired, and almost no one calls him by his real name—if they even remember it.  The reasons for the nickname are long-forgotten, although he claims to remember.

“Just look at how I move,” he says.  “I’ve got the grace and power of a big cat.”

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Sometimes he stumbles as he says this.

I was telling some new friends recently about my old pal, a guy who lurches through life’s little lessons, always landing on his feet.  At least, that’s how he sees it.  He’s always boasting of how he demonstrates the feline reflexes and agility that only the truly-gifted athletes have.

Such claims are usually accompanied by a sheepish grin, following, for example, a frantic scramble to retrieve the food he has just spilled off his plate at the buffet table.

My friends were fascinated by my tales of the Cat’s adventures, if somewhat disbelieving.  They asked if he were still alive, and enquired about the escapades he’s endured.  I obliged them by relating a few—all true, as sure as I’m sitting here now.

After deciding to spend winters in the south with his long-suffering wife, he began to participate again in many of the athletic endeavours he had previously given up.  With wanton disregard for the years that have passed, he threw himself recklessly into everything.

For example, there was the time a group of us were playing in an oldtimers’ slow-pitch tournament.  We were there, more for a good time than to win.  Hence, the Cat was batting fourth in our lineup, rather than last.

When he stepped up for his first turn at the plate, he swung so hard at the pitch lobbed by him that we thought he’d screw himself into the dirt.  But, the Cat wasn’t phased.

“What—a—ripple!” he declared admiringly, unwinding himself awkwardly from the bat.  “Did ya see the power behind that swing?  Panther-power, just like a cat!”  He struck out on the next two pitches, but with a mighty swing both times.

Later in the game, however, the Cat did make it to first base—after being hit by a pitch he couldn’t twist away from.  On his way down the line, he attempted to imitate the pigeon-toed run immortalized by Babe Ruth, but with mixed results.  It looked fine until he tripped on an untied shoelace and fell.

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“I was gonna try out my home-run trot,” he explained later, “except I remembered I don’t have one.  But, I hope you guys noticed how gracefully I slid into first base when y’all thought I had tripped.  Every move is planned!”

Following our final game of the day, we adjourned to the community pool for a swim, a few drinks, and a cook-out.  The Cat was thirsty, but he didn’t stay that way for long.  By the time we got around to eating, he had definitely been over-served.

Sitting fully erect on an aluminum lawn chair, the fold-up kind, he was holding a plateful of food in his hands.  With glazed eyes and a fixed smile, he stared straight ahead, lips moving wordlessly.  Then, ever so slowly, he toppled sideways, out of his overturning chair, and on to the grass.  Incredibly, he never tipped his plate!  Didn’t spill a morsel!

“I wish I’d been there to see that,” the Cat said later.  “I’m sure I handled it gracefully, just like a cat!”

His full day ended with a swim in the pool, something else he doesn’t really remember.  He was walking back and forth across the shallow end, bent over with his face in the water, wearing a face-mask and snorkel.  The Cat likes to take great risks like that.

Inevitably, he stepped into the area where the pool-floor slopes down to the deep end.  He sank like a stone.  When he bobbed back to the surface, still face down, he drew a huge, shuddering breath through the snorkel tube.

That marked the onset of a great thrashing and splashing, punctuated by whooping and coughing, and wild flapping of arms.  The tube, of course, had filled up with water.

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It took six of us to get the Cat out of the pool, still clutching the mask and snorkel when we deposited him on the grass.  After a few moments of laboured breathing, he grinned up at the crowd staring down at him.

“Notice how I managed to grab the snorkel before it sank?” he sputtered.  “Just like a cat-fish!”

On another occasion, when we all went roller-skating (some of us wearing inline skates), the Cat sailed onto the floor with great abandon.  He managed to remain upright as long as he was moving forward, but turning was another matter entirely.  Over the first few minutes, he became intimately acquainted with every corner of the skating arena.

His tour de force happened when he was resting for a few minutes, leaning on a railing that separated the main floor from the rest area.  Suddenly, the roller skates on both feet shot forward from under him, plunging him straight down.  His underarms and chin caught on the rail, and he hung there for a moment, legs outstretched, before dropping to the floor.

When he recovered enough to speak, he croaked, “Did ya see how I caught myself there, before I hit the floor?  Like a cat!”

Unbelievably, these were only some of the escapades from which he’s emerged relatively unscathed.  Several years ago, he went river-rafting with his son and a few other lunatics.  One of their favourite activities as they went careening through the white-water rapids, was to fill the bailing-buckets and toss water at each other.

As it was told to me, the Cat forgot to hold on to the bucket on one toss, and it hit another rafter squarely on the shoulder, toppling him out of the raft.  The Cat was quick, though.  With blinding speed, he lunged for his unfortunate victim, missed him by the slimmest of margins, and followed him over the side.

After much floundering and flailing, punctuated by surges of pure panic, the other rafters managed to pluck the two of them from the river.  The Cat was jubilant.

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“Notice how I went right in after him?” he crowed.  “There was no time to lose!  Poor guy coulda drowned!  Instant response, no hesitation, quick as a cat!”

My favourite of his adventures, however, happened up north, on a winter weekend several years back.  A group of us had gathered at a friend’s farm to boot about on his snowmobiles.

I’m not sure the Cat had driven a snowmobile before, but he approached his designated machine with even more confidence than he usually shows.  Leaping aboard, perhaps assuming it had a neutral gear, he gunned the throttle.  The machine shot forward, the Cat’s head snapped back, and his helmet dropped down over his eyes.  Clawing at it to push it up, he realized he was headed directly for a parked car.

His car!

With his famed, cat-like reflexes, he yanked the handlebars hard to the right, missing the car by a whisker.  As he pulled, however, he fully depressed the throttle under his thumb, and that was his undoing.

Recalling it later, our host said, “He turned away from the car, alright, but then accelerated straight into a tree!  I never saw anything like it!”

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The tree put a stop to the brief, wild ride.  The Cat kept moving after the snowmobile stopped, of course, smashing into the cowling and windshield.  Bruises on his chest and a couple of muscle strains were the lasting effects of his thirty-foot expedition.

“Guess I’ve bought a snowmobile,” he observed ruefully, surveying the wreckage later.  He lapsed into rueful silence for awhile, but then brightened considerably.

“Did you guys see how fast I reacted when everybody thought I was gonna hit my car?  I turned that sucker in the nick of time, cool as a big cat!  Every move is planned.”

The Cat’s friends, and they are many, figure he has maybe two of his nine lives left, if that.  We all hope they’re charmed.

Like them, I love the Cat.  But, given his predilection for tempting fate, I make a point of never standing too close to him.

Gone Camping

My two intrepid daughters, along with their four daughters, have gone camping.  It’s not their first venture into the wilds of Ontario—safely within the boundaries of one of our beautiful provincial parks, of course—but every time they do it, I’m taken back to my own long-ago camping adventures with my girls.

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The first long weekend of the year would arrive at the end of May, and with it our annual rites of spring, traditions that heralded the soon-to-be-arriving summer holiday season.

On my way home from the city on Friday evening, I would notice the heavy volume of traffic on the highway, as several thousand commuters made their way north to cottage-country.  When I’d drive into town on Saturday morning, I’d see throngs of customers at the local nurseries and hardware stores, stocking up on garden tools and materials to aid in the spring planting.

I’d see friends and neighbours on my street—washing windows, trimming hedges, cleaning cars, and emptying garages of all manner of paraphernalia and junk.  In fact, I’d even manage to do a few of those chores myself!

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But my major task of that first long weekend every year was to open up our camper-trailer—a pop-up hardtop with canvas-covered wings that slid out from each end.  We had picked it up from its previous owner on the weekend before Labour Day one year (right after our final camping-trip-in-a-tent ended in a downpour that washed us away).

We had spent the next week cleaning it out and learning how to pack it most efficiently for its first outing on the final long weekend of the year.  As luck would have it, however, the weather was extremely cold and wet for Labour Day that year, and we never did get away.  So, in early October, I backed the trailer up between the garage and the fence, and locked it for the winter.  And there it sat until the blooming of May.

Mind you, I wasn’t all that keen to open it up again, so early in the spring.  I’d have been quite content to wait for some pleasantly-warm day in July.  I was outvoted, though, by my two daughters, who desperately wanted to get inside it, to explore all the gadgets, perhaps even to have a sleep-out.

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“A sleep-out at this time of year?” I exclaimed.  “No way!  It gets too cool at night.  Camping is for the summer holidays when it’s warmer.”

“You and Mummy used to go camping on the twenty-fourth of May,” my eldest responded.

“Yeah, you told us about it,” piped in the youngest.  “You said it was a lot of fun.  And all you had was a tent!”

“Yeah, and one sleeping bag!” the eldest added for good measure.

I had to admit, they were right.  It had been fun in that one sleeping bag.

Anyway, despite some futile, token resistance on my part, they got their way.  All that remained was for me to ready the trailer for its first occupancy.  Alas, that proved to be no mean task.

I had parked it tight to the fence so no intruder could jimmy the lock on the door to get inside over the winter.  I had also jacked it up on four lifts.  When I lowered it to the ground again, I discovered both tires had gone soft.  Consequently, I spent about twenty minutes with a hand-pump, inflating the tires to their proper pressure.

Ten minutes later, just after I moved it into the driveway, I found one of the tires had gone soft again.  So, I spent another half-hour removing it and installing the spare.  Of course, it was soft, too, and had to be inflated by what was now an extremely-exasperated father.

When, finally, we were ready to open the door, I couldn’t find the key.  After I wasted a good few minutes rushing to and fro, fussing and fretting—a period punctuated by vile imprecations—my wife remembered I had left it in the glove compartment of the car.  Upon retrieving it, I happily inserted it into the lock (which seemed to have grown somewhat stiff since the fall), and broke it off when I tried to turn it.

At that point, as I recall, the girls diplomatically withdrew into the house while I tried to rearrange the fundamental structure of the trailer by kicking it!

Eventually, of course, I did get it opened up.  And the girls gleefully set up their beds inside, despite my feeble claims that they’d be cold.

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“I guess it was worth all the fuss,” I muttered sleepily to my wife, as we lay in bed that night, my bruised toes throbbing.  “At least the girls are happy.  They were determined to have that sleep-out.”

But, as you might have guessed, somewhere around three o’clock in the morning, two very cold little urchins crept into our bed and snuggled up real close.

I expect they’ll be doing that very thing with their own daughters this week, snug in their tents under a starry, summer night.

I, needless to say, shall be at home in my bed!

On the State of My Parents’ Marriage

As the 107th anniversary of my father’s birth approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the state of his marriage to my mother.  Their union was ended after sixty-one years when he passed away in 2003.  They had been temporarily separated several times during their life together, mostly during business trips my dad undertook, but never for more than a few days.  His last trip, at age ninety-two, is the only one from which he never returned.

My mother lived another seven years, until ninety-four, the longest period of her life without him since they married in 1942.

As I look back, they seem to me to have been an unlikely couple.  He was the only boy in his almost-Victorian family, coddled (if not spoiled) by his parents and sisters.  He wasn’t arrogant by any means, but he possessed a certain sense of entitlement, a sense that he was born to live at the centre of his universe.  Understandable, I guess, given that he lived at home until he married, looked after by doting parents.

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My mother, who had three sisters and a brother, was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Roman Catholic father—themselves an unlikely match—who taught her you had to earn what you wanted.  Nobody was about to give you anything for nothing.  Taking the lesson to heart, she became determined to succeed at whatever she did.  My mother had the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever known.

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I’m still not sure how two such different people—she a high-powered woman, he a less highly-driven man—could find each other, wed each other, and remain with each other for so many years.

During their marriage, she left him on very few occasions, mostly on excursions with family or friends, and never for long.  She was fearful, I suppose, of leaving him alone to cope with five children.  After all, we could eat only so much oatmeal porridge, grilled-cheese sandwiches, canned spaghetti, and jello.

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Not that my father couldn’t cook; he could.  He could also house-clean, do the laundry and ironing, shop for groceries, help with homework, perform small repairs around the house, or do any other chore necessary to sustain a family of seven.  But he preferred not to—not if someone else would.  I was a grown man before I realized he had mastered the art of feigned incompetence.

Mind you, that might have been a reflexive defence-mechanism.  My mother didn’t make it easy for him, being something of a perfectionist.  Although she believed in the adage that it was better to teach people to fish, rather than giving them a fish—trusting they would therefore become self-sufficient and proficient—she also had the annoying habit of checking everything my father did after he did it, to ensure it was done to her exacting standard.  I think he figured it was better most of the time to let her do the various tasks herself, rather than suffering through her re-doing of his attempts.

They were loving parents, although their parenting style evolved over the years between my birth and that of my youngest sister, eleven years later.  My mother never lost her sense of high hopes for all of us, but she became more tolerant, more forgiving of our shortcomings as we, and she, grew older.  It wasn’t easy for her, though, because her expectations of herself never lessened.  I loved her for that.

My father, on the other hand, entered parenthood with a blissful belief that everything would work out fine.  And I think, despite the contrary evidence we five children provided from time to time, he maintained that belief throughout his life.  Of course, he became exasperated on occasion—on dozens, even scores, of occasions, actually.  To this day, I can hear his favourite expression of frustration when I had somehow messed up again.

Crooked cats!” he’d say, shaking his head dolefully.  But he was ever quick to forgive.  I loved him for that.

He usually called my mother Dorothy—never Dote, as her sisters did, and never Dot.  His favourite pet-name for her was just that, Pet.  She called him Bill; if she ever used another form of address, I can’t recall it.  I never heard endearments for each other, such as Sweetheart, Darling, or Honey, from either of them.  Yet I never doubted their love for one another.

Perhaps it was their sense of humour that sustained them through difficult times and enriched the many joyful times.  I remember overhearing my mother’s admonition to my father, whispered from a hospital bed where she was recuperating from a near-fatal heart attack at age eighty-five.

“I guess this means no more wild sex for awhile,” she teased.

Crooked cats, Dorothy!” was all my ninety-year-old father could say, shocked that she would say such a thing in front of me.

Even at the end of his life it was there, that shared, loving camaraderie.  As my father lay moments from death, my mother leaned close to him and said, “Would you like me to sing to you?”

Without opening his eyes—which would have been twinkling if he had—he muttered, “Not particularly!”

It was their final secret joke.

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So that’s how I remember them and their life with one another.  And I choose to believe they’re together again, forever, their separation ended.

That’s just how it was with the state of their marriage.

Father

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

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At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-six years I’ve been father to two lovely daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

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As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

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As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Fathers’ Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

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The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

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My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.